Real Characters (orig. post Jan 13th)

Real Characters

I recently watched a US hospital drama in which Alfre Woodard (an excellent, but underrated actor) played a writer desperate to finish a novel before her aneurism burst. She said the characters in her book were her family. I understood what she meant. They were real to her and her readers. That’s when you know if the character is successful or not. The three-dimensional nature of characters is to me the test of a good book. Plot is great, but without characters it’s worthless.

When writing Radio Echo, I struggled for months writing the characters of the two sisters. Then I started to write the character of the homosexual fascist. I was staggered that he just fell off the end of my pen. I instantly cared about him despite his unlikeable nature – or at least his distasteful politics. I realised in part that with the two sisters, I’d focused on what happened to them, rather than who they were; trying to nail the plot of the entire novel, at the expense of their character. I re-worked them, and now they’re three-dimensional.

I think the response of the viewer for any art form is an integral part of the process. Arguably, the end product could be considered incomplete without the response of the viewer, however different that individual response is. I could go further and say that fictitious characters are as important as real flesh and blood characters if they have had an effect on you as individuals. If fictional characters can evoke emotion, isn’t that about as good as it gets in terms of anything meaningful? Okay you can’t hug or touch a character in a novel, call them up and have a chat. But to miss them when the novel ends and to wonder what happened to them or to feel changed by them is to learn something about one’s self. Especially as an adolescent, but also as an adult, a good character in a book might express what you’ve been thinking all along, but didn’t have the words to say it. How often have you finished a good book and said –‘yeah that’s what I meant’?

Much of Radio Echo is set in Bologna. The central piazza there, Piazza Maggiore features in the hearts and minds of the characters. “We’ll be dancing with GI’s in Piazza Maggiore before the end of the year,” one of the characters says after the Allies have taken Rome. The sentiment encompasses the hope that people had at that point in Northern Italy. Because the novel is historical, characters have root in real life. They all are fictitious; none of them are based on real people per se. None of the individual events are based on real events. But of course in other ways they are based on things that did actually happen. So when I went to Piazza Maggiore myself, I was fighting back the tears. I had lived with those characters for a long time and it was as if I, in their place, had made it back to the piazza. And of course the citizens of Bologna and returning resistance fighters did congregate there and celebrate with the Allied troops when Bologna was liberated in April 1945.

The memorial in Piazza Maggiore is very different to any of the war memorials I’ve seen in England. It is dedicated solely to the men and women who died fighting in the Italian resistance. Instead of just a list of names, there’s a photo of each person printed on a tile and so you have an image of that person as they were in the mid 1940s with their name beneath it. More than just a list of names, the sight of the images together makes them truly real characters.





  1. Ali Jacques says

    On characters…. it’s almost as if the lives we map for them are like routes to the end of the story, 2D, and making them 3D is vital – and the stage I’m at. Your saying this helped me see them as one of those little model villages or railways where the station master is poised blowing his whistle in a little blue uniform. But then all the 3D characters have threads to each other that criss-cross over the plot lines, and I’m finding keeping all this information together the biggest challenge ever.
    However, I have resolved to do it, and it remains the one thing in my life I haven’t given up on (who said it’s always too early to give up?), so it’s a puzzle to keep working through.